This article raises some issues in relation to the standardization of smart systems that the author believes need (urgent) answers and will thus hopefully trigger future research.

The past couple of years have witnessed a development that will have major ramifications for society: the injection of “smartness” into traditional technologies. This has resulted from the merger of information and communication technology (ICT) with well-known application areas like transportation systems, manufacturing, and power supply. Ongoing mergers include intelligent transport systems (ITS), smart manufacturing, the smart grid, e-health, and smart cities. These smart applications are here to stay.

A similar trend may be observed in the underlying communication infrastructure. Here, cyber-physical systems (CPSs) and the Internet of things (IoT) will enable “smart” things to interact with each other as well as with their environment (including humans).

To make such “smartness” a reality, globally accepted standards are a sine qua non. These standards will shape technological development and thus, to a certain extent, the future. More than 25 years ago, the European Commission observed the following:

Standards are not only technical questions. They determine the technology that will implement the Information Society, and consequently the way in which industry, users, consumers and administrations will benefit from it (CEC 1996, p. 1).

This holds all the more for smart systems given their likely future ubiquity. Billions of sensors will collect data that, in turn, will be processed using big data analytics and machine learning. Obviously, this will have major societal, economic, ecological, legal and ethical ramifications and will directly affect citizens, businesses and administrations alike.

Depending on your point of view, this omnipresence may equal inescapability (think Aldous Huxley). Smart systems may indeed foster the good of humankind, but they may just as well enable the emergence of a surveillance society. Accordingly, their development (and specifically their standardization) must not be based solely on technical and economic considerations, as is typical of ICT standardization; rather, societal, legal, environmental, and ethical aspects also need to be considered. To do so in a credible way will require active participation by the widest possible range of stakeholders during the early stages of the system development process, most notably in standardization.

Such broad participation will also help increase the eventual standards’ legitimacy and thus contribute to a higher degree of acceptance (Werle and Iversen 2006). Adequate consideration of non-technical aspects early in the research and innovation (R&I) process (possibly along with technology assessment exercises) will help shape the process in a way that reduces the risk of non-desirable developments from a broader societal perspective. As Williams and Edge (1996, p. 874) put it, “The shaping process [of a technology] begins with the earliest stages of research and development.”

In most cases, standardization will not be the first stage of an R&I process, but it will certainly be one of the earliest. And it will be the earliest stage to which all stakeholders can contribute (at least in theory), as opposed to, for example, corporate R&I.1

Against this background, the remainder of this article will discuss some issues that need to be addressed in the context of smart systems standardization. These discussions are intended more to provide food for thought than to offer solutions, although there will be one attempt at a solution. I will first address the different forms of multi-disciplinarity that I consider inevitable for the standardization of smart systems (and other technologies with similarly severe societal ramifications) and the associated different types of knowledge that will need to be available in this process. I will then look at the somewhat bleak situation of societal stakeholders in standards setting today and propose a way to improve this situation. I will conclude with some brief remarks.

Multi-Disciplinarity and Knowledge in Smart Systems Standardization

Today’s standards-setting process typically involves one discipline (or a very limited number of closely related ones) for any given standard. For smart systems, things will look very different. Most notably, various disciplines from the ICT sector will join the game and will need to interact closely with a variety of mostly engineering disciplines. Table 1 shows an incomplete list of technical disciplines contributing to sample smart application areas.

Table 1

Technical disciplines involved in sample smart application areas (excerpt)

Technical disciplines involved in sample smart application areas (excerpt)
Technical disciplines involved in sample smart application areas (excerpt)

This “technical” multi-disciplinarity is one aspect of smart systems standardization but not the most important one. Figure 1 shows the four areas where multi-disciplinarity in smart systems standardization will be required. Each such system is depicted as a simple three-level hierarchy in which a smart application deploys its underlying communication infrastructure and is subject to its governing policies and objectives.

Figure 1.

Multi-disciplinarity in smart systems standardization.

Figure 1.

Multi-disciplinarity in smart systems standardization.

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Horizontal technical multi-disciplinarity relates to the standardization of a smart communication infrastructure. It used to be the domain of telecommunication engineers, but this is changing. For example, AI-based methods and tools will increasingly be deployed in communication systems; expertise from these realms will also be required for ICT standardization. Moreover, the likely eventual omnipresence of the IoT, especially in combination with AI-based tools, may interfere with privacy legislation and necessitate ethical and legal input (nip it in the bud!).

Horizontal technical cross-domain multi-disciplinarity refers to integrating today’s smart systems silos, each of which has very limited or no links to the others. This is not a sustainable situation—interfaces between, e.g., the smart grid, intelligent transport systems, and smart buildings will be necessary, and most (if not all) smart applications will be building blocks of a smart city. To break up these silos, experts from different application domains will be needed to ensure semantic interoperability and other integrated functionality.

Vertical technical multi-disciplinarity deals with applications’ potentially hard requirements on the underlying communication infrastructure (like guaranteed levels of latency, resilience, reliability, and predictability). As a consequence, application design, communication technology, operating systems, and control loops will need to be extremely closely coupled, as loosely coupled systems will rarely, if ever, be able to meet these requirements. To achieve this, close multi-disciplinary cooperation will be necessary from the outset.

Vertical non-technical multi-disciplinarity is probably the most relevant variety for the case at hand. It represents the main link between the societal and the technical world. This link will be discussed in more detail below.

First, however, a few research questions may be derived from the above, including the following:

  • How can the boundaries between the individual” standardization silos” be overcome?

  • How can the (typically detached) work on (a) policies and applications and (b) applications and infrastructure be aligned?

Expert vs. Lay Knowledge

The discussion above suggests that very different areas of expertise will need to be involved in developing technically sound and societally desirable smart systems and their defining standards. Both relevant technical expertise and non-technical knowledge will have to go into the standardization process (and into its final outcome, the standards). Depending on the concrete problem at hand, this non-technical knowledge may need to cover environmental, legal, socio-economic or ethical aspects, to name a few.

This may appear a bit odd. After all, setting ICT standards would seem to be a purely technical activity, albeit with potentially strong economic consequences. Indeed, in many cases, this “technology/economy-centric” scenario will be adequate—the nuts and bolts of the USB protocol, for example, will hardly be of interest to those who just want to transfer data to a USB stick, nor will they have any societal impact.

Things look very different for smart systems, though. Eventually they will collect and process unprecedented volumes of information, including personal data. At the very least, adequate measures to render any misuse of this information impossible and to guarantee their privacy will need to be in place. Moreover, smart systems hold the promise of making energy supply, traffic, manufacturing, and cities more environmentally friendly. To reap such potential benefits, sustainability aspects should already be considered during the standardization process.

Obviously, the above has a strong technical dimension. Beyond that, however, legal and regulatory issues will come into play, as will societal and cultural aspects. Privacy, for example, is crucially important in some countries and much less so in others; even within countries, its perceived importance differs between groups of citizens.

The preceding suggests that for smart systems, technical expertise (expert knowledge) will need to be complemented by (application) domain knowledge from relevant non-technical disciplines and by what has frequently been termed “lay knowledge.” The expert knowledge/lay knowledge dichotomy is, however, completely misleading. In the context of smart systems standardization, as well as in other cases where the resulting technology is likely to have major societal ramifications, any such distinction becomes void.

What may be seen as lay knowledge for purely technical deliberations may become expert knowledge when it comes to the consideration of, say, societal impacts. That is, only expert knowledge, albeit from different domains, will need to be made available. Then, technical knowledge will refer to the core technology to be standardized, societal knowledge will be knowledge to be contributed by members of the public, and domain knowledge will refer to knowledge from application domains whose requirements may affect the underlying (communication) technology. In any case, all types must be of equal value.

Incorporating such non-technical aspects into R&I activities is at the core of responsible innovation (RI). Grunwald (2011) argues that the ethical dimension needs to be considered and observes that “… Responsible Innovation unavoidably requires a more intense inter- and trans-disciplinary cooperation between engineering, social sciences, and applied ethics” (p. 17).

That is, RI provides guidelines on addressing potential societal ramifications that may be an (unintended) outcome of a research project or an innovation. Von Schomberg (2011 p. 19) defines RI as “a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society).”

Of course, the participation of a broader range of stakeholders comes with problems. For one, Graz and Hauert (2019) observe that it is very difficult to actually mobilize stakeholders that may contribute societal knowledge to the day-to-day activities of standards-setting organizations’ (SSOs) working groups. This holds primarily for public engagement (as opposed to, for example, technical/scientific domain experts). Moreover, the more stakeholders contribute, the longer the process may last (see, e.g., de Vries et al. 2009 and Riillo and Jakobs 2022). Also, inter-domain communication and differences in perceptions will likely be issues that need to be addressed (see, e.g., Koizumi and Yamashita 2021).

This discussion suggests a number of open questions and issues that future research will need to address. These include the following:

  • How can stakeholders from the non-technical domains (those who can contribute societal knowledge) be motivated to contribute to the standardization of smart systems?

  • How can the standardization of smart systems establish a level playing field where all forms of relevant knowledge are considered of equal value?

  • How can the various aspects that contribute to the communication gap between representatives of different disciplines be addressed?

  • Can insights from other disciplines (such as innovation management) be deployed, given the differences between standardization and innovation processes?

Societal Stakeholders′ Representation in Standards Setting

The previous section has shown that any meaningful standardization of smart systems will necessitate the participation of experts from different disciplines and, most notably, of different societal stakeholders. In the following, the current situation of the latter will be discussed, followed by a discussion of the importance of the individual in standards setting.

RI stipulates that R&I should focus on technical and possibly economic aspects but that societal and environmental aspects (to take two examples) should also be taken into account. Grunwald (2011, p. 17) adds the ethical dimension and observes that “… Responsible innovation unavoidably requires a more intense inter- and trans-disciplinary cooperation between engineering, social sciences, and applied ethics.”

To this end, RI provides guidelines on how to address potential societal ramifications that may be (unintended) outcomes of a research project or an innovation. Von Schomberg (2011, p. 19) defines RI as “a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society).”

It is safe to say that (large) manufacturers with strong technical and resulting economic interests in the technology to be standardized are the dominant group of stakeholders in ICT standardization today. Accordingly, technical aspects (often rooted in economic interests) inform the process.

Other stakeholders, including consumers and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), have long been under-represented (see, e.g., Gupta 2017 and Riillo and Jakobs 2022). This holds even more so for societal stakeholders, despite the recognized need to include these as well:

European standardization organisations shall encourage and facilitate an appropriate representation and effective participation of all relevant stakeholders, including SMEs, consumer organisations and environmental and social stakeholders in their standardization activities (European Union 2012, Article 5).

The European Commission considers umbrella organisations2 the most appropriate means of representation for these groups of stakeholders. The work of these organizations is definitely valuable, but there are some issues to be considered. For one, they are not overly active in ICT, let alone in the area of smart systems.3 Moreover, Jakobs (2015), for example, argues that umbrella organizations should not automatically be the representatives of choice for their constituency because the diversity within a group of stakeholders suggests that common ground will not exist. This holds particularly true for SMEs.

In addition, the general call for broad stakeholder participation (such as that issued by the European Commission) may be contested. Egyedi (2003), for example, argues that democratic standardization is not necessarily a value per se—it depends on the type of standard at hand. However, adequate stakeholder representation needs to be guaranteed for standards with potential societal ramifications (as in the case of smart systems).

Adequate is a tricky term, however. Numerically adequate representation is one thing; adequate influence may be something entirely different. There is ample evidence that representatives’ diplomatic, negotiation, rhetorical, and other non-technical skills may enable even a very small organization to punch well above its weight. As Umapathy et al. (2007, p. 296) put it, “The human dimension of standards setting is an important component of the consensus-based process …”.

This “human dimension” primarily relates to the capabilities (both technical and otherwise) of the individuals who participate in the standards setting process and the relations between them. I will discuss this topic next.

The Human Dimension in ICT Standardization

Technical standardization work takes place in working groups (WGs). Each WG is a micro-cosmos of its own. Firms’ interests are channeled into these WGs through their respective representatives.

Kang et al. (2007, p. 219) note that “Performance in standardization is naturally affected by that of individual standardization experts.” This simple fact is associated with a number of issues. For one, the education, training and skills of an entity’s representatives play a decisive role. Moreover, even if alliances at the firm level have been established up front, they do not necessarily translate into the same alliances at the personal level (”just because my company trusts your company, I do not necessarily trust you”)4 or to the intended voting behavior (see also below).

According to Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992), social capital is “the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.” A WG member’s most valuable (soft) skill is the ability to accumulate such social capital. To be able to do so, an adequate level of trust is a crucial pre-requisite. A functioning personal network can hardly be established without it.

Trust is particularly important in informal negotiations and deal striking, which do not necessarily happen during the discussions within the WG (Dokko and Rosenkopf 2003). This is further corroborated by Grundström and Wilkinson (2004), who quote several high-level standards setters5 who emphatically stress the importance of trust. Trust can only be earned over time, so longstanding, continuing involvement in a standardization activity is important (as opposed to showing up only occasionally).

But social capital may be a double-edged sword. The bonds established between longtime co-workers in a WG may eventually become stronger than the loyalty toward their respective employer or client, as noted by Isaak (2006) and Henrich-Franke (2008). As a result, informal personal alliances may be formed that may or may not be in any firm’s best interest. Moreover, depending on things such as character, abilities, and attitudes as well as on external influences (like employers’ interests or societal and cultural aspects), individuals may assume a variety of roles.6

The goals underlying a firm’s participation in standards setting will differ according to the activity at hand (see, e.g., Jakobs 2014 for a range of such goals). Moreover, the characteristics of these activities will also differ—the standardization of a physical layer communication protocol is a much more technically oriented exercise than developing high-level standards for smart cities. Accordingly, the necessary skill sets of the respective representatives will need to differ as well. In the former case, technical expertise will be most important; in the latter case, presentation and rhetoric skills will be more important. Especially when strong economic interests are present, negotiation and deal-breaking skills will become crucial.

The growing complexity of smart systems’ standardization is most likely to increase the diversity of stakeholders and the associated expertise and interests represented in the WGs. This variety will heighten the importance of delegates’ soft skills and specifically communication and negotiation skills as well as the ability (and willingness) to see beyond one’s own nose. Accordingly, companies will likely invest in additional training efforts to this end and/or try to hire well-known standards setters who already have these abilities.7

Some questions worth discussing in this context include the following:

  • Which skills and capabilities will be required from future standards setters in the field of smart systems (especially those who will represent societal stakeholders)?

  • How can these representatives be best prepared for their task?

  • How might processes be adapted to reduce the influence of obstructionists, naysayers and loudmouths (Spring et al. 1995)?

A Potential Way Forward

The preceding discussion suggests that simply bringing additional stakeholders into the standardization process may not be the most promising approach. So, let us consider a different idea.

Standards may bridge the gap between research and innovation (see, e.g., Botterman et al. 2020). And in ICT, specifically in telecommunications, standardization often functions as an early stage of innovation. I would thus argue that principles of RI8 should also be applied to standardization, yielding” responsible standardization” (RS). In fact, RI’s main principles (Stilgoe et al. 2013) nicely reflect the requirements of smart systems standardization:

  • Anticipation: Consider possible future societal and ethical impacts during the standardization process.

  • Inclusion: Bring in additional stakeholders to identify socially more desirable outcomes of a standardization activity.

  • Responsiveness: React to new knowledge and newly emerging views, norms9 and circumstances.

  • Reflexivity: Place research into its wider societal and ethical context by reflecting on values and beliefs10 during research and development.

Applying RI principles not just in innovation but also in standards setting has already been suggested by van de Kaa (2013), who proposes introducing value-sensitive design into standards setting. This is further elucidated in a case study on smart metering by Ligtvoet et al. (2015). Yet neither of these studies discusses how this could be operationalized.

Along similar lines, Wickson and Forsberg (2015) argue that the notion of “responsibility” needs to be incorporated into the standardization process (at least in cases of technologies with considerable uncertainties attached to them; they use nano-technology as an example). They highlight a number of the process’s deficiencies in this respect and observe that SSOs fail to apply their own relevant standards internally. Yet, they also do not offer any proposals on how this situation might be improved in terms of the design of the process. It is hardly surprising, then, that a recent survey of standardization experts found that the vast majority feel that (de jure) standardization is not “responsible enough to establish socially desirable standards” (Wiarda et al. 2022, p. 14).

The argument that all relevant types of knowledge need to be considered of equal importance has consequences for how the principle of inclusion can be realized. The International Association for Public Participation (IAPP) identifies five different options: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower (IAP2 2018). According to the IAPP, collaborate means to “look to you (providers of societal and domain knowledge) for advice and innovation in formulating solutions and incorporate your advice and recommendations into the decisions to the maximum extent possible.” Meanwhile, empower means “We will implement what you (providers of societal and domain knowledge) decide.” Something in between would appear to be an adequate model for the participation of non-technical stakeholders.11

To achieve this in practice, I propose modifying the current standards-setting process, at least for technologies with major societal ramifications. The box titled” Technical Standardization” in Figure 2 represents the traditional process of technical (ICT) standardization. This is now preceded by a” Desirability Analysis” during which societal, environmental, legal, ethical, and other non-technical aspects of a technical proposal are considered. This step addresses the principles of inclusion, anticipation, and reflexivity.

Figure 2.

A modified standardization process (adapted from Jakobs 2020).

Figure 2.

A modified standardization process (adapted from Jakobs 2020).

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Based on the outcome of this analysis, a go/don’t go decision is made. In case of a go, a list of requirements to be met and boundary conditions not to be violated is provided as a basis for the technical work. To also address the responsiveness principle, this analysis should continuously complement the technical work—for example, through regular input in case of new relevant developments.

One benefit of such a process would be that the technical part will remain largely unchanged. Another benefit would be that the communication between the technical and societal worlds would largely take place at one well-defined interface (the contribution, explanation, and discussion of societal requirements). Benefit number three would be that such a split significantly reduces the necessary level and duration of societal stakeholders’ involvement (and thus the associated costs), which should encourage more of them to become active in the process (and thus at least reduce the mobilization problem). A subsequent joint evaluation of the draft standard by all stakeholders, potentially initiating a new round of technical work, will also be performed.

Smart systems standardization is still at a comparably early stage, so it should not be too late to implement a process that adequately caters to the standardization of a technology that has the potential to dramatically change society—for better or worse.

This model comes with open (essential) questions, including, among others:

  • Could the model be a realistic option in real-world standards setting?

  • What would be needed to actually implement it?

  • Specifically, how could the interface between the two stages be implemented?

  • Even if it were implemented, how could individuals with societal or domain expertise be motivated to participate?

Some Brief Concluding Remarks

Smart systems that autonomously collect and process huge amounts of data are likely to become ubiquitous in the not-too-distant future. This suggests that their design and development should not be based solely on technical and economic considerations. While these systems must be technically sound and economically viable, they must also be ethically, societally, and environmentally desirable and legally above board (especially with respect to data security and privacy). To achieve this, the international standards-setting process may be deployed.

In its current form, however, this process is very much tailored to support purely technical and mostly mono-disciplinary work. These characteristics render it largely unsuitable for smart systems standardization. To overcome this problem, some things will need to happen.

For one, a much more diverse universe of stakeholders will need to contribute to the process (including societal stakeholders). Moreover, the distinction between (technical) expert knowledge and (societal) lay knowledge has to be overcome. All stakeholders will need to realize that knowledge is “expert” only in one domain and is “lay” in another (the reverse holds as well). The standardization process for societally relevant technologies (like smart systems) will need to reflect that. It will have to provide a level playing field where all kinds of relevant knowledge are considered equal.

The process proposed in this paper may be considered a first step. It takes into account practical constraints and boundary conditions like inter-domain communication problems and lack of funding on the side of the societal stakeholders. But much further research (and ideally practical experience) will be needed to develop it further and refine it.

To reiterate, the standardization of smart systems needs to overcome the distinction between so-called lay knowledge and the coveted expert knowledge. Both are equally important for the design of sustainable smart systems that will be beneficial to all.

Kai Jakobs has been with RWTH Aachen University’s Computer Science Department since 1985. His activities and research interests focus on ICT standards and the underlying standardization process. He has (co)-authored/edited 30+ books and published 250+ papers. He is on the board of the European Academy for Standardization (EURAS) and is founding editor in chief of the International Journal on Standardization Research. He is also a Certified Standards Professional.

Kai Jakobs has been with RWTH Aachen University’s Computer Science Department since 1985. His activities and research interests focus on ICT standards and the underlying standardization process. He has (co)-authored/edited 30+ books and published 250+ papers. He is on the board of the European Academy for Standardization (EURAS) and is founding editor in chief of the International Journal on Standardization Research. He is also a Certified Standards Professional.

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1

See, e.g., van Mierlo et al. (2020) for a discussion of the issues to be associated with wider stakeholder participation in corporate R&I.

2

The respective representing organisations include Small Business Standards (SBS), representing SMEs, the European consumer voice in standardization (ANEC), the European Environmental Citizens’ Organisation for Standardization (ECOS) and the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).

3

See https://www.cencenelec.eu/societal/Pages/default.aspx for a list of committees and working groups where the four organizations are represented; there is a remarkable activity of ETUI in the field of ITS, though.

4

Zaheer et al. (1998) distinguish between interpersonal trust and inter-organizational trust.

5

Including Ericsson’s then-director of Product and Business Strategies and Director Access Standardization, Corporate Technology.

6

See, e.g., Spring et al. (1995) and Umapathy et al. (2007) for detailed discussions about potential such roles.

7

It could be observed that some of the big names in standardization, especially those active in the standardization of the Internet, gravitated to the big players. For instance, Harald Alvestrand was hired by Cisco in 2001, three months after he had become chair of the Internet Engineering Steering Group. Vint Cerf, the so-called “Father of the Internet” and co-designer of the TCP protocol, went to Google in 2005 when he was chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

8

According to Wickson and Carew (2014), the numerous definitions of RI agree on “(1) A focus on addressing significant socio-ecological needs and challenges; (2) a commitment to actively engaging a range of stakeholders for the purpose of substantively better decision-making and mutual learning; (3) a dedicated attempt to anticipate potential problems, assess available alternatives and reflect on underlying values, assumptions and beliefs; and (4) a willingness among all participants to act and adapt according to these ideas.”

9

Specifically including societal and cultural ones; this does not necessarily refer to technical norms and standards.

10

Including own ones.

11

Consultation is a “classical” approach to stakeholder engagement. The associated promise would be, “We will keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge concerns and aspirations, and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision” (IAP2 2018). Given the massive impact smart technologies are likely to have, I do not consider this form of engagement adequate.

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